Interpreting & Applying Proverbs (thoughts on Proverbs 10:12)


Proverbs is always such a weird book to try and apply to your life. The theme of the book is what? Wisdom. Is it teaching wisdom to give people a bunch of cookie cutter situations and tell them how to act? No.

In Proverbs 26:4-5, we see two Proverbs back-to-back that say opposite things. One says “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself”. The very next verse says “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes”.

Long story short, all of the book of Proverbs flows from Chapter 1, which talks about the fear of the lord being the beginning of wisdom. Those two contradictory proverbs show us that the book is not meant to be a cut-and-paste sort of thing. It’s not the case that a fool could simply read it, start acting like the “wise man” found throughout Proverbs and suddenly be wise (how would he apply those two verses above?).

Wisdom comes not from doing the things the wise man does, but by being the kind of wise man who fears the Lord and can discern what response to use in a given situation at the right time.

In a similar way, we need to remember that the point of the Bible is not to teach or instruct; it’s to reveal God. Out first question when approaching Scripture should not be “how do I apply this to my life?” It should be “Who is the God revealed by these words?

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.
— Proverbs 10:12

A friend recently asked for my thoughts on this verse. What does everything I’ve said so far have to do with this verse? A lot. This Proverb is first and foremost about God before it is about whatever situation people find themselves in where this verse gets thrown out to try and justify something that was probably wrong.

The main takeaway from this first should be that our God is a God who believes that the rhythm of this world is such that love is capable of covering all wrongs (I do find it interesting the word here is “cover”, and not “make right” or “justify”). This verse points toward God himself doing this in Christ, where the ultimate covering of our sins was done by the greatest act of love.

Okay, now for some more “pastoral” words. Often times when I’ve heard this verse mentioned by people in the church, it has been thrown out by someone in a disagreement trying to convince the other person that a wrong that’s been done shouldn’t still be talked about, worked through, or “held against them” or something. After all, “love covers all wrongs”, right? And so, if love was covering this wrong, why should you still be talking about it?

But if the ultimate fulfillment/application of this verse is found in Christ, then we see how nuanced this verse should be applied in our life. We see that…

  • this principle of “love covering all sins” includes messiness, justice, wrath, pain, suffering, and actual wrongs being actually dealt with.
  • the process isn’t done until the wrong is fully covered.
  • it’s a process and not just a moment.
  • it takes sacrifice and pain on the part of both parties.
  • this covering, though “legally” or “technically” having been accomplished takes an entire lifetime sometimes to fully apply and work itself in out in this relationship.

And so, there should be patience on both sides as this fully accomplished “covering” takes its time to work itself out in our relationship. We shouldn’t rush the process or rush the other person. The process is part of the point.

Okay, those are my thoughts. What are yours?

7 thoughts on “Interpreting & Applying Proverbs (thoughts on Proverbs 10:12)

  1. I love you Paul, but I really disagree with your assessment that the Bible is not intended to teach or instruct (I am going to assume that your language is a possible misreading of Barth and his view of Scripture and/or an egregious assumption made by a systematic issue and a shift in your view on Scripture/inerrancy), and even this statement is eclipsed because you came to this conclusion based on Proverbs (eek…). I don’t think I’ll do him justice, so I’m just going to go ahead and suggest you check out The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter, specifically the chapter “The Poetry of Witt”- Alter’s main historical point is that the Proverbs are MEANT to TEACH and INSTRUCT… in fact scholars speculate that many of these proverbs are the result of “schools of wisdom” in Israel. Furthermore, the semantic parallelism and dynamism exposed in the Hebrew shows a didactic and mnemonic neatness! The complexity presented by the Hebrew shows the deliberate nature of each proverb as a means for dispensing instruction/teaching- they are categorized as didactic messages!!! To assume that the Proverbs are implying anything other than that is an awful (anachronistic?) misreading of Proverbs.

    There is something wonderfully complex about the Proverbs that I just hope you won’t miss… and I am afraid that whatever misconception we have placed on the Bible to be “straightforward” has actually led to our inability to read Scripture for what it is (I say this based on the “Long story short” paragraph”) Scripture can say both those statements about the fool and be right. It is outside the bounds of our “natural” reading- and it should remain this way. This is what I appreciate about the diversity of Scripture, its paradoxical attitude, and its also what grieves me about any individual’s attempt(s) to explain away the difficulties presented by such seemingly contradicting statements.

    Also (and I am sure you have), I would suggest consulting a commentary before making blanket statements about books and/or verses. I understand that your friend asked your opinion, and I trust you know your Bible ;), but doing a little leg work is good too.

    I hate leaving comments on blogs (and I probably won’t re-reply to this), but I just am a bit concerned with your take away from Proverbs. Scripture says of itself that it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so I adamantly disagree with you “that the point of the Bible is not to teach or instruct”; Let me also make clear that I do agree that the Bible is revelation from God. The second part I don’t disagree with, but the first part I am shocked- mainly because I love the Proverbs and their wisdom is relevant for us today and it would be foolish to say that they don’t teach us or instruct us- to say that implies they are not wisdom from God! But I get the sense that part of your difficulty (and why you made it either/or) is because you really do wrestle with inconsistencies and how to explain them.

    Finally, in commenting on the complexity of Proverbs and the “finesse” necessary to understand the Proverbs (during their time) he comments that “The proem of the Book of Proverbs, in other words, at once puts us on guard as interpreters and suggests that if we are not good readers we will not get the point of the sayings of the wise.” (168)

    We should be on guard 🙂

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  2. I’ve got to agree with Monica on this one. Red flags go up when there is scripture that says the opposite of what you just said: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Also, James was very clear that we are to use the word as a mirror, using it as a guide to know how to live our lives — i.e., applying it to our lives seems pretty important. Jesus told us about building our house on the rock, too.

    Also, Proverbs 26:4 & 5 are not opposites. The first halves are opposites, but the second halves are not, and I’m not just nit-picking. This is where the wisdom, the teaching, the proverb is found. I wish I knew more about original languages but the word choice “according” is interesting because it can be interpreted various ways — *especially* in light of the different conclusions of the verses. There’s so much to say about these verses that I don’t have the energy to go into now… But I definitely don’t think they contradict each other.

    Now as to the actual point of your blog, about people trying to force others into forgiving them by throwing a verse at them… I think the verse means what it says. Love covers all transgressions. And I think we’re all still in the process of being sanctified. None of us are very good lovers yet so we’re not very good at covering transgressions yet. Even the person throwing the verse at the other person isn’t covering the transgression of not being forgiven. We’re very needy, desperate creatures despite all of the riches we’ve been given. We’re all still learning what it means to truly love and to *be* loved. 

    That’s what I think 🙂

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  3. All I got to say is that it’s awesome that I know people like Paul, Monica, and others who I can glean so much from regarding scripture. I always enjoy reading exchanges like this one! Keep it comin!

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  4. Want to mention just one thought: Paul, it seems like you see (and please correct me if I’m wrong) instruction and revelation as mutually exclusive in some sense. But isn’t it possible for both of these to be occurring at the same time? This might not be the best example, but consider the ten commandments. These were in many ways very “instructive” and pragmatic “rules”, and yet they served to genuinely reveal the kind of God that had called Israel out of slavery. Or what about much of Paul’s writings. He writes first in the indicative (“But God, even while we were still dead in sins…”) and then proceeds to the imperative (“…therefore, live this way in regard to this particular situation…”). Just a thought.

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  5. Ya, I’m totally on board with Whit. Definitely don’t want to overlook what Paul was saying about scripture’s purpose in revealing God to us. I think it’s beautiful how God reveals who *He* is by showing us who He intends us to be and how He wants us to live. So I think what we’re saying is that the point of scripture is to reveal God *and* to teach and instruct, and perhaps what Paul means is that the greater end in our instruction is a greater knowledge and love of God. Is this a fair interpretation, Paul?

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  6. Pingback: My Ex-Girlfriend, the Blog: a story of relationship, loss, & finding again | the long way home

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